Following a little reflection on the existence of matter and that favourite item of philosophical furniture, the table, Bertrand Russell presents us with a memorable line about the power of philosophical questions. In wondering exactly what a table is, philosophers find remarkable possibilities in an ordinary object that we otherwise wouldn’t have had half a thought about. Leibniz says the table is a community of souls; for Berkeley it’s an idea in God’s mind; for the skeptic, there’s no table at all.
Philosophy does not have all the answers — it may never tell us exactly what a table is — but, Russell argues, philosophy “has at least the power of asking questions which increase the interest of the world, and show the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.” That table in your kitchen, Russell says, could only ever be a table, unless you start reading philosophy and asking philosophical questions. Then that table, and everything else around you, becomes an object of wonder.
As ever, there are good questions in this issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine. In our feature essay Kenneth Primrose describes a project that’s all about questions. He asks interesting people what questions they think we should be asking ourselves, and you might find the responses surprising. I wasn’t expecting this one: “What is my culture preventing me from seeing?”. A bit left field, but good.
We take up another neglected question in this issue’s forum: What makes work meaningful? Of course some of the greats put their backs into it (Aristotle and Marx spring immediately to mind), but it is a little odd to notice that philosophers who think about life and meaning have thought so little about work. However you break it down, we spend a lot of a life working, thinking about work, gaining the skills needed to find work, and travelling to and from work. The numbers are all over the place, but whatever it is, it’s a lot, maybe it’s a third of a life or more. Shouldn’t we think much more about meaningful work, particularly if we hope to have meaningful lives?
Philosophy is not just wonderful thoughts about tables. Sometimes it gets you where you live.